by Xiaoda Xiao
China, a political prisoner feels his way through a Kafkaesque tableau
of rumors, betrayal, interrogation, and execution.
When I was
twenty years old, and a college student, I defaced a portrait of
Chairman Mao. For this act, and without a trial, I was declared
a political prisoner and sent to a forced labor prison on Taihu
Lake, where I served in a labor reform brigade in a stone quarry
for seven years: five years in the labor prison and two years as
an ex-prisoner laborer. The tales in this book, transformed by memory,
imagination, and time, are based on my experiences in this camp,
and are not, I believe, unlike experiences suffered by millions
of others who did not live to tell their tales.
~ Xiaoda Xiao
One night Li
Minchu had a strange dream in which he saw the Great Leader and
Nixon negotiating at a long table in The Peoples Conference
Hall. With his oversized brush, Chairman Mao signed an amnesty agreement
for the political prisoners. Li Minchu only told his dream to Chen
Sougen and Bi Fuyan, the two political prisoners of Group 5, not
expecting that it would spread all over the labor reform units of
the province and would cause such a great resonance among the political
prisoners that even the officers didnt know what to do. At
length, the Labor Reform Bureau of Jiangsu Province officially refuted
the amnesty rumor.
Officer Gu, a tall, handsome young man from the province, showed
up in the barracks. Despite his good looks, the atmosphere became
heavy as soon as he arrived. It was no laughing matter that a cadre
from the province had come to our barracks, and the big hall went
dead silent. The two hundred fifty prisoners sat on the cement floor,
their eyes fearfully fixed on Officer Gu, whose manner was different
than the other officers, even though they were all wearing
the same grayish spring and autumn uniforms in Chairman Maos
style. We noticed that Gu didnt take cigarettes offered by
the local officers as they passed them around customarily, nor did
he hand them his silver cigarette case, which he placed, to separate
it from his folder lying open before him, on the upper right corner
of the table. He looked solemn, and yet he talked to Li Minchu,
who was ordered to stand in front of him, as politely as he did
with his subordinates.
I had this peculiar dream about our Great Leader meeting with the
American President Nixon in the Peoples Conference Hall
Li Minchu said.
have any plan, or motive, before you dreamed the scene? Officer
Li Minchu answered quickly. He looked at Officer Gu, who lit a cigarette
and encouraged him to continue with a nod.
that evening I went to the newspaper wall, and I saw on the front
page of the Peoples Daily a picture of Chairman Mao shaking
hands with the American president. I then joined a crowd of inmates
talking about Nixons big nose. I guess thats why I had
such a strange dream that night.
The more Li
Minchu spoke, the less anxious he looked. And the atmosphere lightened,
too, those in the front row relaxing, everyone relieved that Li
had an opportunity to explain everything directly to the officer
at the top.
is true that you are the inventor of the rumor? Officer Gu
asked, taking out another cigarette from his silver case, which
he didnt smoke, but played with thoughtfully in his thin,
effeminate fingers instead.
but my dream, sir, Li Minchu said.
smiled. He turned right and left, asking the local officers if they
had anything to add. When they said they didnt, he closed
his folder, and declared that the meeting was over.
It seemed that
the storm had passed, because the officer from the province hadnt
announced any sentence against Li Minchu as was anticipated. The
next afternoon Li Minchus wife visited him in the reform office.
When he returned, he looked like a totally different person. As
though waking up from a nightmare, he stretched himself, yawned
deeply, and even hummed a melody as he did when he was in the newcomers
remember I was about to hang myself in the newcomers barracks
when my wife came to visit? he asked me.
I said I did.
I also told him that I remembered the morning when we gathered in
the corner of the cement yard of the newcomers barracks, and
watched him eating the roasted soybeans.
I remember that, too, he said, and in a whisper he promised
to give me some roasted soybeans later on in the evening.
But that night
I was summoned to the reform office, where Chief Chen and Officer
Gu were sitting side by side at a desk smoking cigarettes. For some
reason Chief Chen abandoned his usual rude manner and treated me
nicely. He even offered me a seat. He said: I know Li Minchu
likes to chat with you. He must have a lot to say because hes
been quiet for such a long time. I want you to report directly to
me everything he says.
a secret just between you and us. I heard that you made a serious
mistake in the past. This is a good opportunity for you to atone
for your sinful thoughts, so dont pass it up, Officer
I nodded. They
let me go.
I worried about
Li Minchu. They had set up a false impression that his case had
already been settled so as to let him tell his long confined thoughts
to the inmates he trusted, which they would take as new evidence
against him. I dared not tell Li anything, because I was afraid
that I would get into trouble if he divulged the secret. But I found
it difficult to keep away from him. When I first came to the group
he had tried to avoid talking to me as if I were an informer. Now,
however, when I was sent to collect his treasonous words, he followed
me everywhere. I understood what it meant to have a friend to talk
with when one was in a difficult situation. I had experienced such
moments myself. But the fact was that my own situation was uncertain.
Finally I dropped
a hint that he should pay attention to what he said.
Li Minchu must
have gone to ask the chief, because Chief Chen called me to the
reform office the next afternoon and threatened to send me to the
you would seize the opportunity to draw close to us. But you did
the opposite. Ill do you next, he hollered.
sent Li Minchu to solitary confinement that same day.
my name one night in the lavatory. He hadnt spoken to me since
I came to the group; as a result I felt awkward running into him
in the lavatory. His voice sounded strange. His wrinkled face looked
ominous under the dim light of a bulb hanging from the center of
the ceilingless roof. He was no longer the man I had known. I believed
that he must have forgotten that we had once been as close as brothers.
I couldnt resist wondering whether he was sent by Chief Chen
to collect my thoughts. Seeing that I didnt respond, he called
my name again.
at me, Gao said in a subdued voice, Youd better pay
attention to someone around you. Li Minchu wouldnt have been
in such big trouble had he listened to me.
say anything else. But what he said made me suspicious of my top
bunk neighbor Zhuang, a former policeman in Xuzhou who had come
to serve a five-year prison term for raping women inmates. Zhuang
especially liked to chat with me, which I thought was quite natural
because we were similar in age.
telling Zhuang that I felt it incomprehensible that they should
put Li Minchu into solitary confinement just because of a dream.
I had also asked him if he, as a former policeman, could predict
how many years they were going to add to Li Minchus five-year
term. He said he couldnt. But from then on he always asked
me about Li Minchu.
I stopped talking
with the former cop after Gao warned me that night. But it proved
too late. One afternoon Chief Chen summoned me to the reform office.
do you think about Li Minchu? If I remember correctly, you were
once in the same cell with him. Am I right? he asked.
sir, I said.
must have struck up a friendship with him.
say a word.
that you talked with women inmates about amnesty, he said.
deny it so quickly. Well get things clear tonight, the
me to follow him to the lavatory as soon as I returned to the barracks.
tell anyone else what you said to Zhuang?
dont confess anything, otherwise I cant help you out,
he said in a whisper.
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© 2010 Guernica Magazine